Let’s get one thing straight – this was not the Heat of last year’s finals. This was the inconsistent Heat of 2014, coming off a back-to-back where their best player had exhausted himself in historic fashion the night before. But nevertheless, they are the current NBA champions and victories against them are rare. More impressive was that this was as comprehensive a three point victory as you’ll ever see. The Rockets never trailed all game, and whenever the two starting units were matched up against each other the Rockets seemed to have a clear edge. The raucous home crowd and the antics of Patrick Beverley spurred them on to one of the year’s better wins. LeBron had a chance to tie it at the buzzer, but his long three over an outstretched Howard clanked off the rim and left the Rockets with the win.
Patrick Beverley was everywhere tonight. He made three 3 pointers in a row to start the game and never looked back. In one particularly memorable sequence, he blocked a lay-up, then stole the ball, then managed to draw a foul while diving out of bounds to save an errant pass from Parsons. In another, he picked up LeBron (!) on the perimeter, hounded him into a tough shot, then leaked out for an easy lay-in. His final line of 19 points (5-8 from three), 2 assists, 3 steals doesn’t immediately jump out of the page, but it was one of the best games he has played all year and his talismanic play lifted the rest of the team to new heights.
What was surprising about the majority of the game was that when the starters were matched up the Rockets came out well on top. The +/- tells the story – all of the Rockets starters were in double figures positive, and all the Heat starters were double figures in the negative except for Wade. They got contributions from every position – Dwight was scoring in the post against Bosh, Beverley was hot from the outside, and Terrence Jones cleaned up numerous situations around the rim. The Heat did try to keep the ball out of Harden’s hands, but he made them pay for it by registering 11 assists to go along with 21 points.
There were only two reasons why the Heat were able to hang around in this game – the bench and the break. The Rockets bench has been in a slump in recent times, and they were thoroughly routed by the Heat’s bench mob tonight to the tune of 47-15. After a huge 39 point first quarter, the second quarter saw the second unit go into a deep offensive funk in which they only scored two points in a six minute span. I think part of the problem lies in the team still acclimatising to Asik’s return. Last year proved that you can still have an effective offence with him on the court, but you have to adjust your sets to give him the kind of looks that he is capable of finishing. Unfortunately with 4 months to get used to the luxury of Howard’s finish prowess the team doesn’t seem to have the sets or the passing acumen to use Omer properly, and the result is essentially a 4-on-5 offensively. Lin’s slump continues – we know his game well enough now to know that it is likely only to be a temporary problem, but while he’s not playing well it really hurts the team’s effectiveness when the backups are on the court. He struggled to get any penetration towards the basket tonight, and without that the team couldn’t generate anything good in the half court.
The other problem was the fast break. The Heat are automatic in transition – if the ball is in LeBron or Wade’s hands, they will score. In the first half, the Heat were pushing the ball off misses and profiting from live ball turnovers. Both contrived to fuel their fast-break game, so much so that by half-time they had amassed an 18-0 lead in fast break points. However, the Rockets were able to tighten up their transition defence in the second half (and the Heat seemed too fatigued to keep the pace up) and reverse this trend. In the second half they came back to score 16 of their own and redress the balance somewhat. These are two areas (keeping the turnovers down, getting back in transition) that the Rockets have historically been poor at, so it was encouraging to see them be able to tighten the screw slightly.
A couple of other thoughts:
- I thought the Rockets’ rotations looked really crisp and impressive tonight. Several times I noticed them send a double team at LeBron in the post and then get everyone back to their man to deny an open three point shot. Perhaps it was a point of emphasis in the days they had to prepare. Whatever the reason, the extra effort really made a difference as they were able to keep the Heat’s three point shooters under wraps. It took a late explosion from Marcus Beasley (4-7 from three) to bring their 3pt% up to a measly 25.7%.
- Having Hamilton on the roster has made a small but significant change to McHale’s rotation. For most of the season he has run with a three man guard rotation, but Hamilton has the foot speed to guard the shooting guard position and this has changed things for the better. The new structure features a 5 man guard/wing rotation, picking three out of Beverley, Lin, Harden, Hamilton and Parsons. This is useful because it gives the team more options when facing opponents with good players at the 2 guard. Tonight was one such night, and while Wade is wily enough to cause anyone problems I thought Hamilton did a really good job of making life difficult for him when the two were matched up.